As the end of Ulpan approached my longing to escape from Jerusalem grew. Tel Aviv was still a mystery to me and I looked forward to exploring the sin city of the Holy Land. Around December Sean and I made the move forty five minutes West to the city that has a beach as a back yard and some semblance of life on the day of rest. The move went smoothly as Sean’s girlfriend did most of the work involved in finding us an apartment and I didn’t have much stuff to bring with me making the trip easy. We lived in a small apartment in the centre of the city, it wouldn’t be long before the army came knocking to inform me that I had been assigned a date to take the gibush, or selection, to the Tzanhanim.
I was a long way from the panic attack that had so startled me when my plane touched down at Ben Gurion airport several months before. I had worked hard to pass these tests but was by no means confident that I would be accepted. Instead of attending the language courses I had gone out drinking every night and slept in late. I worried that my language skills just wouldn’t be up to the tasks involved, I had relied on the army to act as the melting pot that would ensure my Hebrew learning would take care of itself without me having to do any work. Exactly how this plan was going to come into effect I wasn’t sure but it seemed to make sense at the time.
I asked a neighbour to translate the letter telling me where to report for the gibush. The date, time and everything I needed were on there. It took place in the central administrative base of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). I had read about the tests for years, dreaming of becoming a paratrooper but only recently had the prospect of actually earning the red beret become a possibility. My hands were shaking when I took the letter back from my neighbour, I had taken deliberate steps to get to this position but it had never seemed possible before, as though it was a dream that someone would soon shake me awake from.
The bus journey to the sprawling Tel HaShomer base was short, I still don't know how I found my way to the right area inside. I was amazed by the sheer size of it, there were restaurants, a cab stand, a bus station and many other things that made the place seem like a town rather than a military facility. There were roads inside the base with soldiers wandering around wearing all kinds of different uniforms with different coloured berets, insignia and rank badges. I just looked out for the red berets and followed them to eventually get to the right place. With only soldiers all around me I felt uncomfortable in my civilian clothes. It was a feeling I wouldn’t experience for much longer.
I found a line of other guys all waiting to get into a fenced off section of the base and it was clear that I had found the right place. The first thing that I was put through was a medical examination followed by lots and lots of form filling and the two standard army fitness tests. The first is a 2 kilometre run and the second how many push ups and sit ups you can do within a specific time frame. Neither of these test proved problematic for me as I had trained very hard for almost a year in order to arrive at that point. The soldiers responsible for the gibush used the results to divide up the potential paratroopers into various groups based on their level of fitness. It turned out that my scores were high enough to be placed into the group with the highest fitness, though I wasn't told that until later. Then suddenly, that was the day over with. I had expected 2 days fraught with physical challenges but it turned out that the actual test for the paratroopers was only several hours long. It was to begin before dawn the next day and until it did we were left to our own devices.
There were plenty of first experiences for me that day, it was my first exposure to the smell of canvas that was to dominate my tent dwelling army service, the first time I had worn the green khaki fatigues of a soldier and the first time I tasted evil army food. Eventually that night I fell asleep, it was cold lying on that cot in the open tent. I was incredibly aware of how alone I was, watching the other kids talking to each other made me feel even more alone, utterly unable to join in the conversations. Everything was a surprise to me especially after it dawned on me that my fellow candidates knew exactly what was going to happen minute by minute. They had friends, brothers, fathers and all manner of other family members and acquaintances to school them as to what to do and how to behave. I only had myself and the willpower that had gotten me this far.
The gibush began when it was still dark, we were divided into groups of about 20 and spent several hours running around doing all kinds of physical activities. The moment had come and the longer it went on the more I relished it. Months of exercise had all been for this, the knowledge that I had already committed 2 years of my life to the army combined with the fear that I would have to serve in some other unit if I didn’t perform propelled me forward.
The gibush itself was surprisingly easy, plenty of running around, sometimes with weight on my back and a stretcher run to finish it all off. Maybe one or 2 people quit my group but that was the maximum. I surprised myself by feeling glad to watch them go, each time someone quit gave me more confidence to carry on. 'They may have failed but I never would' became my motto throughout. After a few hours of physical testing it was all over and I was on my way home, hi as a kite having conquered the dreaded paratroopers test in style.
A few weeks later I received a letter from the army, with no idea how to read it I left my apartment and stopped a stranger in the street to ask her to translate it to me. “Mazal tov you past the gibush for the Tzanhanim” she said in heavily accented English. From the first easy step of getting on the plane until this moment my plan had worked, now the army just needed to draft me in and the red beret was as good as mine. My thoughts turned to officer school and the long career that awaited me. I knew that there was one more test before I had really begun on my path to success, the next gibush to the famed Sayeret Tzanhanim. This was the real test, I wanted Special Forces and the next gibush was the obstacle to overcome in order to get there. Another letter arrived in the post not long later, it was my official draft to the army.
My date was set for late July 2002, I was finally going in!